‘Upgrading’ Rhythms on Your Jazz Licks

‘Upgrading’ Rhythms on Your Jazz Licks

Want a quick summary of this lesson?

Get your Handy PDF Download: Click this link to get a print friendly version of all the exercises in this post for your practice.

Recently I put together a complete lesson series on the classic jazz standard ‘Stella By Starlight. Today’s post is a sneak peek of one of the lessons. Find out how to get the full series of these lessons on improvising over Stella By Starlight by clicking here.



 In this free lesson, you’re going to learn:

  • A neat trick for creating flashy virtuosic phrases out of material you already know. 

Something I get asked about all the time by my students is:

“I’m tired of playing eighth note lines all the time! Can you give us something faster and more flashy to play?”

Here’s the thing:

You don’t need to learn anything new to be able to play faster phrases. In fact, you have everything you need at your fingertips already.

Watch the above video where I’m going to show you a neat way to manipulate the rhythms and placement of your slower licks to turn them into virtuosic sounding triplet and double time lines.


Example Of ‘Upgrading’ The Rhythm of a Lick

Here’s the example lick I used in the above video:

Example Lick – See video at 01:22


To make this into a faster line, I could simply transform the rhythms into triplets.

However, that means you won’t have enough material to fill out this chord progression anymore – you’ll need more notes to fill out the line.

But here’s the trick: delay the entry of the new faster line a few beats or even a whole bar into the chord progression, like so:


 Voila! You now have a neat sounding triplet phrase to provide a bit more rhythmic variety in your soloing that still makes sense over the chord progression.

Enjoyed this post?
Get your Handy PDF Download: Click this link to get a print friendly version of all the exercises in this post for your practice.

 So there you have it – the ‘Rhythm Upgrade’ trick – a simple way to get far more “bang for your buck” from the lines you spend your precious time learning.

That’s it for today’s lesson – let me know what you thought of this cool rhythm trick by leaving a comment below…


This concludes this free excerpt of my ‘Stella By Starlight Decoded’ lesson series. To get instant access to the rest of the lessons in this new series (as well as a large number of other lessons on a variety of classic jazz standards for guitar), they are all included in my revolutionary online program, the FretDojo Academy Club. Find out more about the Club here…

Greg O’Rourke,

Founder, Fret Dojo

World Leader in Online Jazz Guitar Education

The Blues, from Way Back by Mark Whitfield (Part 2): Signature Licks Explained

The Blues, from Way Back by Mark Whitfield (Part 2): Signature Licks Explained

This post is part 2 of our investigation into Mark Whitfield’s jazz guitar solo from The Blues, from Way Back.

In this video lesson you’re going to learn 4 cool-sounding jazz blues guitar licks from Whitfield’s recording, so you can solo over a jazz blues like a pro.

(Part 1 of this series was a demonstration of a complete transcription of this solo, that you can download for FREE from my website by clicking here.)


About Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield is one of the most highly acclaimed jazz guitarists alive today.

 <p><br /></p>Throughout his career, he’s collaborated with legendary artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, and many others.

In 1990 the New York Times dubbed Whitfield “The Best Young Guitarist in the Business”. Later that year, Warner Bros. released his debut album The Marksman, and The Blues From Way Back is a track off this landmark recording.


4 Jazz Blues Guitar Licks

Check out a demonstration video of the 4 jazz blues guitar licks from The Blues, from Way Back below.

Then, read on for explanations on how they work and tips to get the most out of them in the woodshed.


Cool Bonus: Get access to a FREE print friendly PDF version of The Blues, from Way Back licks by Mark Whitfield, complete with notation, TAB and analysis.


Hint: Fast forward the video to the time code (in green) to get to the spot in the lesson that demonstrates each step below.

Jazz Blues Guitar Lick #1 (See video at 0:56)




You can’t get much more bluesy than this lick.

This one kicks off with a slide into the 6th of the chord, which is followed by the root – giving it that tasty major blues sound.

This is followed by one of the most important elements of jazz blues vocabulary – the slide from b3 (the ‘blues note’ in a major blues scale) to 3.

The final part of this jazz blues guitar lick outlines the C7 chord of the harmony. However, note that this lick sounds pretty cool over nearly all the changes of a jazz blues without transposition – meaning you can treat every chord in the blues progression as C7. You can hear me doing this when I play this lick along with the backing track in the video above.

So, experiment playing this lick over different chords in a jazz blues progression instead of only on the I7 chord.


Jazz Blues Guitar Lick #2 (See video at 1:35)




Whereas the last lick had a major blues sound, lick #2 is distinctly minor blues in its quality.

The first run in this lick is easy to understand – it’s based on a minor blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7).

Like lick #1, this one finishes on a triplet figure outlining a C7 arpeggio. You can also use this lick on every chord of a blues progression without transposition and it will (usually) sounds great.

Notice how the first part of the lick is tense with a double time feel, but the final phrase is a slower rhythm and more relaxed.

This is an important concept to bring into your solos – the interplay between tension and relaxation.

To give the solo this tension/relaxation interplay, Whitfield mixes traditional blues sounds with sophisticated bebop approaches. The next 2 licks are great examples of jazz bebop vocabulary at its finest.


Jazz Blues Guitar Lick #3 (See video at 2:35)




There’s a lot going on in this lick.

A chromatic scale begins the line, which then moves to a commonly used bebop pattern.

My buddy Matt Warnock from mattwarnockguitar.com calls this bebop pattern a ‘4123 finger pattern’, as that’s the finger pattern it makes on the fretboard if you play the pattern on one string only.

Following this, a series of various enclosures highlight key chord tones of the harmony.

To get nitpicky – there are 3 different types of enclosures in this lick. The first is a chromatic enclosure (marked Enc) – where you play a note 1 fret above and then and then 1 fret below a target tone.

The next is a diatonic enclosure (D.Enc), where you do the same but rather than playing chromatically, you base the enclosure on the diatonic scale pattern of the given harmony.

The final enclosure is known as a diatonic chromatic enclosure (D.Ch.Enc), which is a mix of the above 2 enclosure types. In this context, it gives a strong harmonic minor sound to the line, as the C# is the raised 7th of Dm.

You thought that one was complicated. Wait till you see the next one…


Jazz Blues Guitar Lick #4 (See video at 3:25)




This lick is the most advanced and can be a bit tricky to get under your fingers, but it’s well worth it.

The first bar is full of strong bebop sounds – here we have a 3 to 9 arpeggio followed by a 7b9 sound, and again we see a 4123 bebop finger pattern – the same as what was used in lick #3.

Bars 2 and 3 have an interesting series of triads outlined: C – Eb – Ab – and Db.

Can you guess what’s going on here?

These triads are tritone substitutions of a I – VI – ii – V progression in the key of C – namely, C, A7, Dm, and G7. Each of them is substituted for their tritone equivalent.

This series of tritone substitutions (i.e. based on a I – VI – ii – V) is known as the ‘Ladybird’ progression – based on the closing chords of the jazz standard of the same name.

You could say the harmony is ‘elaborated’ here – instead of a straight C7 chord being outlined, a I – VI – ii- V turnaround is implemented instead to create more movement in the harmony.

“But!” (I hear you say) “…the harmony is on G7, not C7! Explain yourself!”

Here’s the answer:

The harmony is anticipated from the next bar.

Here, Whitfield is essentially thinking 1 bar ahead in the harmony. This is a technique used since the days of Charlie Christian to create a feeling of forward motion in a solo.

In summary – the harmony is elaborated, tritone substitution is applied to the elaborated harmony, all while anticipating the harmony of the following bar (phew – that was quite a mouthful).

Make sense? I hope so.

Having trouble printing out the above licks? Get a free print friendly PDF version by clicking here…


Tips For Practicing Jazz Guitar Licks


  • Make sure you learn the lick from memory as soon as possible – jazz should almost never be read from a page if you can avoid it.
  • Learn the lick in every octave and in every position on the fretboard (I use the CAGED system to navigate the fretboard).
  • Sing the lick as you play it on the guitar.
  • Play along with a backing track that is playing the chords the lick is based on (these are written above each lick).
  • Experiment with the lick to see if it can still sound good in other situations – e.g. if the lick is a major lick in C Major, does it work over the relative minor (Am), and vice versa?
  • Put on a backing track of a standard chart (e.g. a jazz blues, Autumn Leaves, All The Things You Are, etc), and practice soloing with the lick wherever you can throughout the chart.
  • Play the lick over and over but attempt to vary it slightly. I call this the ‘morphing’ technique. Alter the rhythms, mix up the order of notes, change the length of the lick and so on.



These jazz blues guitar licks are great examples of how to get a classic jazz blues sound into your solos.

Jazz blues requires a certain level of bebop vocabulary to give it the right jazz flavor, so experiment with these approaches to get that essential mix of tension and relaxation into your playing.

*Stop Press:* In an upcoming post I’ll be interviewing the man himself, Mark Whitfield, who’s going to share the story of his journey with jazz guitar as well as some tips to help aspiring players like you get more results in the woodshed.

I look forward to telling you all about it very soon – stay tuned!

Let me know what you think about today’s article on these jazz blues guitar licks by leaving a comment below…

Greg O’Rourke

BMus (Hons), ANU


Special thanks to Mark Whitfield for giving me permission to publish these excerpts on my website.

Photo By Bill Morgan Hartford, CT, USA – Mark Whitfield 1, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3856550

The Blues, from Way Back by Mark Whitfield (Part 1): Transcription and Analysis

The Blues, from Way Back by Mark Whitfield (Part 1): Transcription and Analysis

I’ve got something special to share with you today.

To kick off this month’s series on jazz guitar blues, you’re going to learn a complete transcription of highly acclaimed jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield’s solo from The Blues, from Way Back: a track from his classic debut album, The Marksman (1990).

In today’s post, you’re going to learn:


  • The reasons why studying transcriptions is so important for any jazz guitarist
  • How to play the complete transcription of Mark Whitfield’s first solo from the recording of The Blues, from Way Back
  • A general overview of the types of approaches and concepts Whitfield uses in this solo.

Cool Bonus: Get access to a FREE print friendly PDF version of The Blues, from Way Back transcription by Mark Whitfield, complete with notation, TAB and analysis.


First, let’s have a brief discussion on why to learn a transcription in the first place…


Why Learn a Jazz Guitar Blues Transcription?

Learning transcriptions of master players is one of the most important things you can do as a jazz guitarist.

The reason?

It gives you a complete all-around jazz guitar workout.

Here’s how it works:

  • Usually transcriptions are tough technically, so learning a transcription is a great way to build up your technique.
  • You’ll learn a wealth of jazz vocabulary that fits well together, giving you plenty of new ideas to bring into your own playing.
  • Learning a transcription is the best way by far to train your ears – especially if you transcribe a recording from scratch.
  • By playing a transcription along with the original recording it was transcribed from, you’ll get a sense of how to add shape to your own solos – i.e., how to structure the rise and fall of a solo in order to tell a captivating musical story.

The last point is particularly important.

If you just learn jazz guitar licks in isolation, without listening to the lick in the context of the full solo it came from, you won’t get a well-rounded picture on how to the lick effectively as you improvise.

Here’s the thing:

Even if you end up only delving into a few licks from a transcription after you learn the full solo, these licks act as a kind of ‘trigger’ in your mind for the general vocabulary and approaches contained in the complete transcription.

So, learning a transcription is a very effective way to learn a huge amount of jazz vocabulary in a short space of time.

Convinced? Good. So let’s now dig into the transcription itself…


The Blues, From Way Back

The Blues, from Way Back is a track from Mark Whitfield’s debut album The Marksman, which catapulted him to international recognition in the 90s after he graduated from Berklee College of Music.

Why did I want to transcribe this recording?

This solo is probably the best example of jazz guitar blues I’ve come across, so I was keen to study this one intensely in order to get a more authentic jazz blues sound into my improvised lines.

Here’s the original recording of The Blues, from Way Back on YouTube:

What I particularly like about this solo is how seamlessly Mark Whitfield weaves traditional blues ideas between sophisticated bebop vocabulary.

Learning this solo has also been a great technique builder for my own playing.

Both the bluesy licks and the bebop lines are classic pieces of vocabulary that are really worthwhile to work into your own playing.


Presenting The Complete Jazz Guitar Blues Transcription!

So here it is:

The complete transcription of Mark Whitfield’s first solo from The Blues, from Way Back.

Watch the video to get a demonstration of the fingerings I used to play the solo, then read through the notation and TAB of the transcription below.

(Hint: If you want a print-friendly PDF of the transcription, click here to access it now).

Note: Fast-forward the video to 5:00 in for a close-up slow-motion view of my hands as I play the solo (if you need a closer look at the fingerings in action).



















Backing Track:


Having trouble printing out the above transcription? Get a print-friendly PDF version by clicking here…

You may be scratching your head as to what some of the annotations are in the analysis below the notation, so here’s what they all mean:


  • 4123 = Bebop finger pattern using 4123 fingers in that sequence
  • Aalt = A Altered Scale
  • AN = Approach Note
  • ANT = Harmonic Anticipation
  • APhrDom = A Phrygian Dominant Scale
  • BN = Blues Note
  • C7arp = C7 arpeggio
  • Chr = Chromatic Approach Chord
  • Chrom = Chromatic notes
  • CMajBl = C Major Blues Scale
  • CMinPent = C Minor Pentatonic
  • CMixo = C Mixolydian
  • App = Double Approach Notes
  • Ch.Enc = Diatonic Chromatic Enclosure
  • Enc = Diatonic Enclosure
  • DStop = Double Stops
  • Enc = Chromatic Enclosure
  • LN = Lower Neighbour Note
  • PN = Passing Note
  • Q = Quartal Voicing
  • UN = Upper Neighbour Note

Also, you may have noticed that I play entirely fingerstyle on the video, but Mark Whitfield uses a pick on the original recording.

A confession…

My plectrum style simply wasn’t up for the job of playing a solo as difficult as this, so I resorted to using my more secure fingerstyle technique for this one.

Feel free to use either a pick or fingerstyle to play this solo depending on what you’re most comfortable with.


Tips for Learning a Transcription to Get Great Results

There’s no doubt about it:

When you study a transcription like this, it’s crucially important to practice it in an effective way.

Here are some tips to ensure you end up getting the sounds of the transcription into your own playing when you improvise:


  • Memorize the transcription – don’t just read it off the page! Learn the transcription just one small phrase or even one bar at a time, and memorize it as you go. You’ll learn it faster, and assimilate the sounds into your ears much more than if you read a whole page at a time and then try to memorize a whole chunk at once. You’ll find that if you memorize as you go, you’ll memorize it much faster and more securely that way.
  • Listen to the video (especially Mark Whitfield’s original recording of The Blues, from Way Back). Don’t just try to emulate the notes and rhythms, but also the sound, feel and phrasing that he uses in his playing. This is all the stuff you can’t notate on a page but is one of the most important benefits of learning a transcription: learning how to shape and ‘speak’ your phrases in an authentic way.
  • Once you can play the transcription through, circle licks and patterns that appeal to you in the solo, and practice incorporating them into your own improvisations.
  • Practice improvising on a blues backing track in the style of the transcription you’ve just learned – this is a great way to bring your own original voice to the material.

One more thing:

Pay close attention is to the fingerings that I’ve given in the TAB – it matches the fingerings that I play on my video. Getting a workable fingering is one of the most crucial aspects of being able to sound fluent on your instrument.


Vocabulary Ideas Used in The Blues, from Way Back

Let’s look at some general points on the ideas Whitfield uses in his solo to create interest. Start experimenting with these in the woodshed, as they are classic jazz blues vocabulary ideas:

  • Sliding from b3 to 3 – this is a well-known blues cliche but Whitfield does it so much throughout the solo it helps give that classic blues sound throughout.
  • Harmonic Anticipation: Whitfield often anticipates a chord in his solo before it appears in the rhythm section. This is a simple way to create interest and forward motion in your playing and is a technique that’s been used since Charlie Christian. In particular, Whitfield often anticipates the I7 (C7) chord when the harmony is still on V7 (G7).
  • Harmonic Generalization – This means using the same lick or idea without transposing it over various key centers. This is an easy way to create tension and interest.
  • Alternating C Major Pentatonic/Blues and C Minor Pentatonic/Blues – using these two distinct harmonic colors is another classic blues idea that helps to keep the interest going in this solo.
  • Motive Repetition – Whitfield reuses a lot of phrases over and over throughout the solo in various ways – can you spot them?
  • Alternating between fast tension and slow relaxation – Most of the double time lines you can see in this solo are classic bebop vocabulary. The solo creates tension by using these elaborate double time lines. This tension is then released by following the double time lines with more simple pentatonic and blues lines. This helps to maintain interest, excitement, and variety.



As you can see, there’s a wealth of jazz vocabulary to be unearthed in The Blues, from Way Back solo by Mark Whitfield.

But we’ve only just scratched the surface…

Once you’ve learnt the whole transcription, it’s time to take some key lines and concepts out of the solo and incorporate them into your own playing in a deeper way.

That’s what part 2 of this series will be all about.

In my next upcoming post, I’m going to dig deeper into a few of the licks out of The Blues, from Way Back solo, look at how they function and give you tips on how you can incorporate them into your own playing.

I look forward to working on these with you then – stay tuned… :-)



Greg O’Rourke

BMus (Hons), ANU

Special thanks to Mark Whitfield for giving me the permission to publish this transcription on FretDojo.com. Find out more about Mark at his website, www.markwhitfield.com.

Quick Video Lesson: The Amazing Line ‘Morphing’ Technique

Quick Video Lesson: The Amazing Line ‘Morphing’ Technique

I wanted to share with you this week a video of a technique that I use all the time in my own practice of jazz guitar improvisation, called the ‘line morphing technique’.

This technique is an easy way to get more creative ‘juice’ out of lines that you learn or transcribe.

What ideas do YOU have for topics on jazz guitar practice you would like me to create? Let me know by leaving a comment below or emailing me at greg@fretdojo.com.



*New Book*: The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar


I’m pleased to announce that Matt Warnock of Jazz Guitar Online and myself have spent this year co-writing a comprehensive guide on arranging chord melodies and how to master the art of chord soloing, entitled The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar.

This brand new eBook is a complete A-Z guide on creating your own great sounding chord melody arrangements for trio and solo guitar situations, and you’ll also learn how to chord solo (i.e., improvise with chords) like a pro.

To find out more about the book and to get your copy, click here>>

4 Great Chord Melody Jazz Guitarists Part 4: Joe Pass

4 Great Chord Melody Jazz Guitarists Part 4: Joe Pass

“Joe Pass looks like somebody’s uncle and plays guitar like nobody’s business. He’s called ‘the world’s greatest’ and often compared to Paganini for his virtuosity. There is a certain purity to his sound that makes him stand out easily from other first-rate jazz guitarists.” ~ New York Magazine, 1979

Last but certainly not the least, we now reach the last part of this 4 part series on the great chord melody players.

This guitarist impacted the jazz guitar world in a way no other player has.

Joe Pass is probably the most famous jazz chord melody player and one of the greatest and most prolific jazz guitarists of the 20th century. He was the most well-known mainstream jazz guitarist since Wes Montgomery.

Whether it was single note soloing, chord melody, solo guitar, or comping in the rhythm section, Joe was a master of all.

If you’re going to study only one chord melody guitarist in detail, choose Joe Pass – as his approaches to chord melody pretty much defined the style.

Read on to learn about his career as well as 3 classic Joe Pass chord melody licks to add to your chord melody toolkit.

Cool Bonus: Download my FREE eBook, Chord Melody Guitar Basics: a 42 page guide on creating your own chord melody arrangements that sound great – in just 5 simple steps.

Joe Pass’ Life & Career

Joe was the son of Mariano Passalacqua, a Sicilian-born steel mill worker.

On his 9th birthday, Joe received his very first guitar, a factory model bought for $17.

As early as 14, Joe was getting gigs and playing with people well beyond his years.

A few years later he unfortunately developed a heroin addiction and spent much of the 1950s in prison. Thankfully, he subsequently overcame his addiction and returned to his guitar playing in a big way.

Joe Pass ended up having a very high profile career, including long-term collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, as well as being a sideman to Louis Bellson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and others.

Joe Pass’ Journey to Solo Jazz Guitar

Joe’s career took some interesting twists and turns along the way.

First, check out this rare video of a young Joe Pass, early on in his career:

As you can see in this video, Joe is playing mainly single lines only. His single line solos are classic bebop at it’s finest, principally inspired by Charlie Parker and Django Reinhardt.

However, as his career matured Joe Pass gradually made a transition into focusing on solo chord melody guitar. He abandoned his guitar pick altogether, favouring a fingerstyle technique instead.

The landmark Virtuoso series of recordings signified this turning point in Joe’s career. Listen to these recordings as they are a good representation of his approach to chord melody.

Here’s an example:

Some players get put off by Joe’s guitar tone in the Virtuoso recordings, and I agree that it’s a bit rough at times.

But if you look past that and listen to his ideas, you will really hear some truly groundbreaking stuff – Joe Pass took solo jazz guitar to a whole new level on these albums.

The challenge with an entirely solo jazz guitar concert is keeping the audience engaged and interested.

Joe Pass achieved this by using a potpourri of approaches in his arrangements: walking bass lines, extended virtuosic single note runs, surprising key changes, tasty chord phrases, and more.

His playing synthesized all of this into an exciting and expressive musical form.

The Jazz Guitarist Everyone Wants To Be

Joe Pass was a trailblazer when it came to solo guitar playing, and defined the style that has been emulated by countless players since.

Some may think that Joe Pass’ ideas are cliched – but remember that he came up with many of these cliches in the first place.

Joe had such a strong sense of melody. The melodic lines in his solos are incredibly sophisticated but are always accessible to the listener – the mark of a great jazz player.

He was very adept at using simple ideas and standard chord voicings, but using them in highly creative ways.

The feeling you get from listening to Joe Pass is that you don’t need to have a lot of ideas in your playing to make it sound convincing, you just need to use a few ideas very creatively.

3 Joe Pass Licks

Joe Pass’ chord melodies always put the melody line at the forefront. The main purpose of the chords is to support this.

Joe’s typical chord melody technique was to harmonize the melody with drop 2 and drop 3 chords.

I find Joe Pass’ style to be more technically demanding than that of Ed Bickert or Lenny Breau, but it’s essential to study in order to learn how to apply more stock standard chord voicings to a chord melody context.


Joe Pass Lick 1

In this first lick, you’ll see pretty standard voicings, but listen out for the skillful voice leading to and from each chord.

Mmm…that voice leading is as tasty as chocolate…

Listen & Play:




Joe Pass Lick 2

This next chord phrase is one that Joe Pass would typically use when accompanying a singer during a vocal break.

Note the use of the chromatic approach chord in bar 1 and the movement from natural tensions to altered tensions in bar 2.

And I’m sure you’ll recognize a typical Joe Pass cliché in the final bar:

Listen & Play:




Joe Pass Lick 3

The melodic figure on the first two beats of the next lick is a classic Joe Pass arpeggio phrase.

Once again you can see the chromatic approaches in this lick, movement from natural to altered tensions, and a heavy use of drop 2 chords:

Listen & Play:




Classic Joe Pass Recordings and Resources

Joe Pass left a huge legacy of recordings. Below is a selection of some of my favorite examples of Joe Pass’ chord melody style:

There’s also several Joe Pass books available covering many aspects of his wonderful guitar style – standard textbooks for any jazz guitarist:

I hope this article has got you interested to learn more about Joe Pass’ chord melody playing, whose ideas and approaches has inspired countless guitarists – and will continue to inspire many more in the future.

*Stop Press* New Chord Melody eBook Out Now!


I’m pleased to announce that Matt Warnock of Jazz Guitar Online and myself have spent this year co-writing a comprehensive guide on arranging chord melodies and how to master the art of chord soloing, entitled The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar.

This brand new eBook is a complete A-Z guide on creating your own great sounding chord melody arrangements for trio and solo guitar situations, and you’ll also learn how to chord solo (i.e., improvise with chords) like a pro.

To find out more about the book and to get your copy, click here>>


Chord melody is one of the most satisfying ways to play jazz guitar.

Not only does it make your soloing more interesting, but you have the ability to play all on your own without a band – an essential skill for any jazz guitarist.

As you can see, each of these four jazz guitarist’s styles give you an idea of the multitude of directions you can take with your own chord melody adventure.

So, check out the players and the resources mentioned in this series of posts, and give chord melody a try if you haven’t already!

I hope you enjoyed these articles, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below…

Greg O’Rourke, BMus (Hons), ANU

4 Great Chord Melody Jazz Guitarists Part 3: Lenny Breau

4 Great Chord Melody Jazz Guitarists Part 3: Lenny Breau

“Lenny Breau is the greatest guitar player in the world. If Chopin could have played the guitar, he would have sounded like Lenny Breau.” ~ Chet Atkins

If I had to pick one player out of the pantheon of jazz guitarists who was the most creative, spontaneous and dynamic, the clear choice for me would be Lenny Breau.

Although his life was cut short by an untimely death, and his history was peppered with personal difficulties and drug problems, he achieved great artistic heights with jazz guitar, and his innovative approaches to the instrument have influenced countless guitarists since.

In this post, you’re going to learn some of Lenny Breau’s key approaches to chord melody jazz guitar, as well as get a background of his life and influences.

Let’s get into it!

Cool Bonus: Download my FREE eBook, Chord Melody Guitar Basics: a 42 page guide on creating your own chord melody arrangements that sound great – in just 5 simple steps.

Lenny Breau’s Life & Career

Born in 1941 in Maine, USA, Lenny’s parents were Harold “Hal Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody: professional country and western musicians.

After starting playing guitar at age 8, Lenny ended up being the lead guitarist for his parent’s band at the age of 14.

But, it didn’t last.

Around 1959, Lenny left the band after his father chastised him for using jazz lines in his lead playing – and actually slapped him in the face for it!

This event shaped Lenny’s destiny, as he then went to seek out local jazz musicians to collaborate with instead.

The rest is history.

Lenny ended up being a regular session guitarist for CBC radio and CBC television and even ended up having his own TV show, The Lenny Breau Show.

During his career, Lenny befriended Chet Atkins and the pair did many collaborations. Here’s an example:

Lenny Breau’s later career was mainly spent performing, teaching, and writing for Guitar Player magazine.

Lenny died in 1984, aged only 43, but left a huge legacy that should be studied in detail by all jazz guitarists.

An Original, Innovative Approach to Chord Melody

Blending many styles of music such as jazz, country, classical, Indian, and flamenco guitar, Lenny had a highly evolved fingerstyle technique that reached rare levels of virtuosity.

Check out this track of All Blues, which showcases Lenny Breau’s playing at its finest. This is from Live at Bourbon Street – my favourite Lenny Breau album:

As you can hear, Lenny’s playing is totally different to any other jazz guitarist you may have heard.

You might be fooled into thinking there are two guitarists onstage, instead of one.

This is why:

Lenny wanted the guitar to sound like a piano, with a pianistic ‘left-hand’ style comping and ‘right hand’ melodies.

This resulted in an entirely new approach to playing chord melody.

“I approach the guitar like a piano. I’ve reached a point where I transcend the instrument. A lot of the stuff I play on the 7-string guitar is supposed to be technically impossible, but I spent over twenty years figuring it out. I play the guitar like a piano, there’s always two things going on at once. I’m thinking melody, but I’m also thinking of a background. I play the accompaniment on the low strings.” ~ Lenny Breau

Complete Spontaneity

If jazz guitar was a martial art, Lenny Breau would have been a true kung fu master.

The reason?

Lenny is completely spontaneous and uninhibited in his soloing – you can tell that very little of his improvisations are premeditated in any way. Lenny responded dynamically to whatever his other band members were playing at the time.

This is what I like most about Lenny Breau.

He encapsulated the jazz ideal: spontaneous, original, and energetic musical expression in the present moment. This is what we are all aiming to get to of course, but few truly make it there.

Lenny proved that it can be done.

3 Lenny Breau Licks

As mentioned above, Lenny approached chord melody jazz guitar as if he was playing a piano, with the ‘left-hand’ (lower register) comping and the ‘right-hand’ (higher register) featuring elaborate melodic lines.

Not an easy feat, but Lenny developed clever approaches to get this effect, which the following licks demonstrate.


Lenny Breau Lick 1

Listen & Play:




Notice the types of chords that Lenny is playing in the lower registers throughout this lick.

As they are only 2 notes (usually the 3rd and 7th of the given harmony), it enables him to be very melodic with elaborate single line phrases in the upper voice.

Because of this clever three note voicing technique (i.e. 2 notes in the comping and 1 note in the melody), it freed up Lenny’s hand to play much more melodically than if it was being ‘strapped down’ by holding down too many notes (e.g. if he were to use drop 2 or drop 3 voicings instead).

Also noteworthy is some hip sounding offbeat comping in the lower register.

Trust me, it’s a lot easier to play than it sounds.

The 2nd bar features classic bebop vocabulary: a C#dim7 arpeggio (which is a 3 to 9 arpeggio of A7b9), followed by an A altered scale which creates tension in the melodic line.


Lenny Breau Lick 2

Listen & Play:




Here’s another example of a similar approach with three note voicings.

In the first bar, you can see Lenny slide into the comping with a chromatic approach towards the end of bar 1

This is followed by an elaborate single line that uses a 43241 bebop finger pattern in bar 2.

One of Lenny’s hallmark techniques was being able to hold long notes in the melody line while comping with offbeat figures in the lower register, giving the illusion of playing two guitars at once. You can see this in action in bars 1 and 3.


Lenny Breau Lick 3

Listen & Play:




To beef up a single line, Lenny Breau would often comp with three note voicings on every melody note, as this final lick demonstrates.

This is another textural effect you can add to your chord melody toolkit.

Also, note how the chords are anticipated on the offbeat to bars 2 and 3 (labelled ‘Ant’ in the notation).

Chord anticipation is a technique that was one of Lenny’s favorites – as it, in his own words, “gets the music to swing more”.

Lenny Breau Recordings and Resources

Lenny Breau left a large legacy of recordings; unfortunately, they are of varying quality.

But, by far my favorite is Live at Bourbon St. (recorded 1983) that features bassist Dave Young, but here are some other noteworthy recordings to check out:

  • The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau – Live! (1969)
  • The Hallmark Sessions – (recorded 1961)

To get more on the life and background of Lenny Breau, check out the book One Long Tune: The Life And Music Of Lenny Breau by Ron Forbes-Roberts.


Lenny Breau’s chord melody techniques are excellent to study for chord melody beginners. They are relatively easy on the fretting hand yet still sound very effective.

That means that you can get started right away arranging swinging chord melodies that sound great.

To learn Lenny’s techniques in more detail as well is some other easy arranging techniques, check out this guest post I did recently for Jazz Guitar Online, Chord Melody Made Easy.

I hope this article has inspired you to check out more about Lenny Breau’s legacy.

Lenny was an astoundingly creative guitarist and an inspiring musician, despite the many challenges he faced in his personal life.

Studying his recordings has made a huge impact on my own playing, so I encourage you to do the same.

*Stop Press* New Chord Melody eBook Out Now!

Don’t forget, my new eBook, The Complete Guide To Chord Melody And Chord Soloing, has just been released!

If you want to learn the easy way to chord melody mastery, get your copy by clicking here.



I’m pleased to announce that Matt Warnock of Jazz Guitar Online and myself have spent this year co-writing a comprehensive guide on arranging chord melodies and how to master the art of chord soloing, entitled The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar.

This brand new eBook is a complete A-Z guide on creating your own great sounding chord melody arrangements for trio and solo guitar situations, and you’ll also learn how to chord solo (i.e., improvise with chords) like a pro.

To find out more about the book and to get your copy, click here>>

In the next and final installment of this 4 part series on great chord melody players, you’re going to learn about perhaps the most famous jazz guitar chord melody player that ever lived.

He certainly needs no introduction. Do you know who I’m talking about?

I’ll see you in the next post!

Greg O’Rourke, BMus (Hons), ANU

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